Curating without Objects: Strategies in Curation in the 21st century

This essay was published in “Esei: Esei-Esei Kuratorial, Amerrudin Ahmad, Rohana Md. Yusoff, Baktiar Naim Jaafar, Norazmah Rashid, Osmahamidy Osman. (2020) Balai Seni Negara

(ISBN 978-967-0914-46-6)

Exhibition-making has now gone beyond presenting objects to the public. Exhibitions of today have become sites of critical discourse. Integral components towards the making an exhibition would  be the object,  the subject  and space or place. These components form a different relationship towards each other based on their context.

Curatorial practice involves the process of mediating encounters with objects. Originating from the latin word “curare” meaning “to take care of”, a large part of a curation not only involves the physical care of the object, but also care to ensure the object’s relevance to the community. Renowned Swiss curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist described curation as a means of “creating junctions in objects”. A curator will ensure the object’s value through its ability to offer interpretations of cultural heritage. 

Expanded notion of art require a curation practice that is also expanded

This challenges conventional notions of art: before art objects were assumed to be singular, inanimate and occupying a certain physical space. Artifacts and artworks which are part of museum and gallery collections, are considered as such objects. Today this notion has radically changed with the adversities of the 21st century. Art objects are no longer confined to the white box galleries. 

The art of today, infiltrates and confronts society. Artists like Tania Bruguera and Edi Rama, who challenged art conventions. Rama was a well-known artist before he entered politics and currently serves as the prime minister of Albania. Bruguera, a performance artist, has been arrested several times and is considered a “danger to national security”. They are the breed of 21st century artists who explored the relationship between art, activism and social change by placing themselves in the frontline of their country’s politics.

As art expands into society, curators too need to  redefine their practice parallel to this. Objects are no longer, static or inanimate. They have become quasi-objects or hyper-objects. Quasi-objects derive meaning only when they are interacted with and have the ability to bring together or combine, whereas hyper-objects are so large,  they defy our sense of scale. Climate change and the universe are examples of hyper-objects that challenge our mortal understanding of size, scale and impact. For architect-theorist Stan Allen; objects have dissipated entirely. The object reappears by submitting itself to the natural forces of the place/situation.

An Inquiry into Local Independent Curatorial Strategies

The practices of  four independent Malaysian curators are at the center of this essay. In view of the changing, often volatile contemporary art landscape, I am inspired by the tenacity and dedication these “hybrid” curators have towards their craft. The term hybrid is used here because they are not specialized curators in the museum or institution-sense; instead, they are conversant in the field and have developed curatorial strategies that aptly navigate the tumultuous terrain of Malaysian contemporary art. Through a series of conversations, we uncover their expanding practice  as art enters the public spaces in Malaysia.

Hanisah Johari’s “B-Loom” was one of the public art installation featured at Urbanscapes Festival 2019 curated by Lim Kok Kean. Hanisah operates under the name “Condiment Strings” where she teams up with her husband and worked with the local community of Kwai Chai Hong of KL’s Chinatown. This work was sponsored by Nippon Paint Malaysia. Photo credit: Condiment Strings

Lim Kok Kean:  Ex-festival Director for Urbanscapes Festival and DJ

As a teenager growing up in KL, Lim gravitated towards the underground music scene. A music aficionado who thrived on gigs and played in bands, Lim also had an appreciation of album cover art. British artist-designer, Peter Seville, captivated Lim and introduced him to the world of visual art. Skill-wise, Lim learned the practices of sound engineering, advertising, marketing and was even brand manager for big name companies like Red Bull and Heineken. During work, he befriended artists, namely Malaysian street artists, whom had also enriched Lim’s knowledge on the local visual art scene. By 2017, Lim helmed the festival director/lead curator role for Urbanscapes Art Festival.

Perhaps as an homage to his memories of the city, Lim felt the need to reintroduce Kuala Lumpur to Malaysians, Lim crafted an interconnected, almost  trilogy-like, curatorial narrative of “Rediscover (2017), Reimagine (2018) and Reconnect (2019); is an attempt to examine KL from multiple perspectives, hoping to generate renewed interest in this century old city.

The festival takes place in a constellation of public places within KL. From abandoned shophouses to dead ends in back allies, it’s connection with the physical spaces is palpable. Located within civic spaces, accessibility, both physically and conceptually, is critical to Lim. He explains:

”To many people, art galleries are a very intimidating experience. It’s considered a very elitist place. Sometimes when you walk in an art gallery, you get the feeling that you’re being eyed and judged. It’s kinda like walking into a luxury brand store where the sales assistant eyes you. This in turn, makes the person feel like they’re not educated or don’t have the knowledge to enjoy art. I want to overcome these negative perceptions of art by creating an enjoyable experience towards art, especially for first-timers.”

Part of making art accessible, is to provide different entry points by accommodating a variety of taste palettes.   From music to independent films, theater to interactive art, captures the multidisciplinary nature of Urbanscapes. Attending multiple mediums simultaneously can be a production nightmare but this does not deter Lim. Instead, he gets strategic and assembles a team of content specialists, “It’s like going to war. You must know what tactics and personnel you need to win it. It’s all about finding the right people who have the knowledge and experience to navigate this.”

Lim surrounds himself with like-minded people; from artists, collaborators to sponsors: there must be a belief in the bigger picture beyond financial gains. Commission work is the core of Urbanscapes and Lim places value on working with artist rather than the final object. He prefers a good collaboration where the expectations from the artists and audience are met and derives great satisfaction from working with emerging talents who eventually meets with success. 

Intan Rafiza:  curator National Visual Art Gallery, performance artist

While Lim’s curatorial practice can be seen as a negotiation of urban spaces, Intan Rafiza is comfortable both inside and outside of an art gallery. Working for National Visual Art Gallery (NVAG), she blends her knowledge of the national collections with her practice as a performance artist to offer new readings of visual art. 

Unfortunately, her search for self-expression began from a difficult childhood. Experiences growing up in a family where money was tight and substance abuse was rife shaped Intan’s path in advocacy.

 “I started with activism and volunteer work  before I became a curator and artist because of how my own life was impacted by the of discrimination and stigma of HIV effecting in the passing of a family member. Also,  how art relates and is used to express issues in human rights.” 

Despite the unfathomable hardships she endured as a young adult, Intan channelled her emotions to educate herself to understand how art can be a medium for self expression into her artworks. She graduated from fine arts school at UiTM, she added,” A lot of my early works dealt with dark themes as I was focused on making art that was about self-expression.” 

Her early life experiences lead her to develop a heightened empathy towards marginalized communities and social causes where she regularly participates in social activism and volunteer work. She also fostered close connections with the art community as she, Aisyah Baharuddin and Poodien started an arts ‘Komuniti Jalan Kempas’(2004) in Shah Alam. Her close ties with the local art community garnered trust among fellow visual artists where she began curating solo exhibitions for them.

Being a  curator at an art institution permits her to work with the national collection. While Intan readily admits that the nation state narrative is central to the collection, she searches for new ways to read and appreciate the artwork. She does this by reconstructing the context in which the artwork was a part of. Intan had the opportunity to research on performance art present in Balai’s collection for Tekad Enam Dekad, Balai’s 60th anniversary exhibition (2018). She was pleasantly surprised to discover that Balai had collected a substantial number of performance art, despite it not being thoroughly acknowledged as one. 

“Performing arts within the theater context is understood by the audience, but performance art as part of the visual art scene is under appreciated.” For example, Anak Alam, (photos collection, 1970’s) one of the first multidisciplinary collectives established in 1974, presented a series of “Teater-Mini”. Despite being called “theater”, improvisation and techniques used would be considered as performance art, by today’s standard. Another example is “Mystical Reality” where Redza Piyadasa released a bird and created the empty bird cage artwork. That very act of the bird taking flight from the cage, Intan considers as performance art. 


“Unfortunately, at that time, artists were not aware of the term “performance art”, so there is very little documentation on the actual act itself. For Tekad 6 Dekad, I had to carry out a lot of research especially with Five Arts Centre, Malaysia where I interviewed Mark Teh about “Skintrilogy” (1995) so I could fill in the missing documentation.”

As a curator in a public art institution, she is always curious about what defines a public audience. Speaking from her practice as a performance artist, she often uses the experience of her audiences to bring them closer to an artwork. 

“My first curatorial project at Balai was an exhibition “Guna + Semula + Jadi”  in conjunction with Floria Festival, Putrajaya (2011), which was actually a public art exhibition. Since it will be held in a public space, I would expect a very diverse crowd, especially those probably viewing art for the first time.”

 It is because of the anticipated diversity of audience, Intan worked with artists who could adapt to public spaces and interact with the audience. Intan believes that when it comes to public art exhibitions, the artist bears more importance than the artwork. “It’s more important for me to work with artists who understand the conditions of working in a public space and to recognise the artist’s body of work. Not to focus too much on a particular artwork.”

It is also critical to provide as many entry points to the art works and she does this by crafting programs such as workshops, talks, etc that allows more avenues for public participation. While, she considers exhibitions are stand-alones, the programs are supplementary components.

When it comes to understanding her audience, Intan uses her experience as a performance artist. “The way my audience appreciates my performances is by connecting through their own experiences.”


“At a recent performance (At That Time, 2019) I did for A+ Gallery, I had pieces of earth and gave it out to the guests. Another time I dressed myself up in a rice sack.

“After my performance, a visitor commented that when I passed out the dirt, it was similar to passing out sweets to children. Another person added that when I dressed up in the rice sack, it reminded him of at a Chinese funeral where the family members of the deceased would wear sacks too. Although those were not my intention, for example, my intention for the  rice sack was used to symbolize anti-capitalism, but I don’t think it’s right for me to say,”No, you’re wrong. That’s not the point of my performance.” It’s more about how the audience layers their own experience as a way of them relating and appreciating my performance.”

Kok Siew Wai: Festival Director, Co-Founder of Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film (and Music) festival (KLEX), and artist

While appealing to the audience is important for Intan and Lim, this is not the case for Siew Wai. She is the brainchild behind Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (KLEX), an annual festival that started in 2010. It identifies with a niche area that caters to a specific group of enthusiasts that stretch beyond Malaysia.

A common misconception that being experimental means “anything goes” and Siew Wai believes differently. To dispel this notion, she focuses on showcasing quality content, both in experimental video and music performances. 

“Being experimental is not “anything goes”. Good quality experimental works are as serious and as professional as commercial works, only that it’s taking a different path, and the things that it concerns are different. But many have misunderstood experimental works as unimportant or “anything goes”, hence when they try to make something “experimental”, it becomes sloppy. 

Siew Wai shared a quote that applies to experimental works in general from American jazz musician Joe McPhee on improvised music:

“Very often people think it’s (improvised music) kind of throwaway music in that anyone can do it. I think anyone can improvise. That’s quite easy to understand. But it’s not throwaway music and because it’s often played without written scores and everything, they think nothing goes into it compositionally. Well, it’s really being composed as it’s happening and that’s akin to trying to, say, repair a flat tire on a car that’s rolling . . .You’ve got to know a kind of direction that the music is going in anticipating things. You also have to listen. A very (big) part of it is listening with the whole self.”

Siew Wai’s journey into curation is intertwined with her personal creative expression. The active artist, curator and organizer that she is today, Siew Wai began as an avid writer and pursued her interests as singer-songwriter in her teens. However, it was her tertiary education experience in New York, USA that opened up a new world of experimental art where she discovered the likes of improvisation, free-jazz, avant garde music and film, and interdisciplinary performance.  

Eager to share her enthusiasm for this experimental craft with fellow Malaysians during a short break from her studies, Siew Wai approached a local independent art space to propose “free video screenings” at the venue space but instead received an unfriendly remark from the venue owners. However, Siew Wai did not let this unsavory experience deter her from her plans, and was eventually carried out screenings at INTI Colleges in Subang Jaya and Nilai campus and Malaysia Institute of Art (MIA), KL.

When it comes to her curatorial process, Siew Wai pays close attention to the artwork. She is guided by her preference of “simple, sincere and unique works and not outwardly concerned about appealing to the audience. At times, she identifies a regional theme and works within that perimeter. She selects one subject and looks for multiple perspectives to understand that same subject, allowing different layers of reality to interpret one subject.

“An incident happens and different people would take it differently and have varying opinions. I try not to only present one truth, but multiple truths that exist simultaneously.” 

The careful thought behind the selection of the video works is extended to the performance segment of KLEX. Siew Wai and her team are selective when it comes to improvisation musicians because their performances often need to be experienced first hand. 

“We care about the quality of our programme, so we would need to have knowledge and/or experience with the performers. And for performers, especially improvised musicians, it’s not difficult to understand their crafts if you have seen their performance, or have played with them. Their live performance will tell you everything honestly.”

One striking feature is KLEX’s ability to stay on course for the past decade even though it runs on a modest budget. The grassroot nature of KLEX taps into the local arts community where organizational work is runned by volunteers that are made up by artists. 

This is a good strategy to maintain creative freedom within a festival that spearheads “experimental art”, as it relieves the burdens providing returns for the sponsor. While visitors are encouraged to pass “door donations” during the festival, it is relatively a festival with little official funding. Goethe-Institute Malaysia has been KLEX’s most supportive cooperative partner, since 2011. Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL) has also sponsored Japanese artists to attend KLEX for several times. KLEX does not obtain commercial funding, and this in a way enables KLEX greater creative freedom to push boundaries of experimentation. 

Quality artwork presented at the festival, will in turn attract quality artists and performers locally and internationally to flock to KLEX. They gather at KLEX to network and explore their practices collectively, turning the festival into a global experimental laboratory. 

Siew Wai spoke about one of her early events she organized between Squeaky Wheel Media Resource and Alfred University: “My intention was to create a platform connecting artists from these two places. I think the “creative people” seem to be my main interest in curatorial work. 

It’s about the promotion of artwork of certain artists that I wish to introduce to others, and also to connect people from different places and communities, to come together.”

Lisa Foo: Independent curator, visual artist and practicing architect

The surge of public art related projects have brought forth many the architecture-trained  curator and artist in the local art scene. Intan Rafiza admitted that curators with an architectural background could have the upper hand. “It’s because they know about structures and have an eye for aesthetics.” This succinctly describes Lisa Foo, a practicing architect and visual artist.

Lisa’s practice of architecture and art are symbiotic. She often takes part in art projects that offer her opportunities for creative growth. One recent project was “LIVING:PADI” where performers, artists from the rice-eating region participate in week-long workshops in Chiang Mai. 

Originally slated to be a traveling performance, Lisa looks to these “passion projects” of hers as means to explore alternative perspectives. The interdisciplinary nature of such projects allows her to assume different roles in productions and enriches her grasp on creative production. 

Her curatorial visions are driven by the desire to instigate an awareness of creation and design.”My journey into curation happened by chance. I was invited by the British Council in Thailand to participate in a workshop in Bangkok. 

They knew me from my artworks because that was the time when I worked with up-cycled  plastic bottles. There was an exhibition called “Everything Forever Now”  and when I returned to Malaysia. British Council Malaysia asked me to curate a similar exhibition but with Malaysian content.” 

Her journey led her to discover fascinating ecological-friendly design and art projects such as Jeffrey Lim’s Bicycle project, Ultra 10 and Epic Homes. 

At the start of a curatorial project, she’s keen to know more about the people engaged in the project, “and discover a like-mindedness in the team.”

Next, would be defining a theme where she often addresses the awareness of creation and design and ways to present this idea to the public in different manners. One of her significant curatorial projects was Konstruk, a site-specific public art exhibition.  Lisa co-curated Konstruk with Nani Kahar; another architect from LabDNA;  and it was supported by Khazanah Nasional. The theme was bamboo and while Lisa was familiar with bamboo in her practice, she has not encountered bamboo at the scale required in Konstruk. She spent months of research from locating locally sourced bamboo to understanding the various artists and architects.

The project involved 15 artists and architects from Malaysia and the region; each with a team of 5-10 builders. There were even specialist builders, some of them have never travelled outside of their own countries; made for some trying pre-production. 

Also, working on-site and outdoors, at the mercy of Malaysian weather, posed another challenge to the curators. “As beautiful as the harbor was, there isn’t much shade for the artists to work under. While we were lucky that we had clear and sunny weather, it was very hot and they had to pace themselves out to accommodate for the extreme heat.”, Lisa shared.

For Konstruk, Lisa targeted designers, architects, people with an appreciation or keen interest of innovative bamboo designs as her main audience. “Audience” were even those among her production team. Having worked with a bamboo supplier in Pontian, whose business was primarily using bamboo to create effigies used in traditional Chinese rituals, was pleasantly impressed by the vast potentials of local bamboo. The experience working on this project helped the business owner innovate new bamboo building treatment techniques for building purposes.

In many ways, the gruelling production process carried on as much meaning as the final artworks did. Not only did it become an attraction, but it also functioned as an experimental lab for the creators. Regional specialists, architects, contractors and even indegenouis communities like the Orang Seletar, were involved in the exchange process, resulting in greater inclusivity and diversity of creators. Collaborators could share and expand their knowledge on bamboo’s resilient yet underused building material. 

Also, Konstruk, ravels in site-specificity as it is located on the sea borders between Malaysia and Singapore. “There is this universal narrative that underlines the crucial relationship between living and humankind. With bamboo, the main medium, grows directly from the soil, it promotes love and care for the environment.”

Conclusion 

Independent curator and artist, Nur Hanim Kamaruddin explained, “Curators function as intermediaries between various agents, artists, artworks, institutions, the audience, media and the general public, even collections.” (Yap:2019:pg.172).  Curators, especially those outside the institutional practice, have adapted to the instability of curating outside of the box by adopting particular strategies. 

Based on the conversations with the curators in this essay, it clearly shows while they well-versed to operate outside the commercial or institutional gallery space,  they have also developed medium specific curatorial strategies. Lim is comfortable navigating the unstable terrain of indie art festivals, Intan in the realm of public performance art, Lisa works with large scale public art and Siew Wai is an active advocate of experimental film and music.

When it comes to their roles as curators; there is an insatiable desire to form a connection. Lim connects smaller art projects with the larger vision of the festival as Lim prefers to work within the perimeters of “project enabler”  than curator. For Intan, she believes that a curator acts as a mediator or connector (penyambung) between the artist and the audience. Important for Siew Wai, on the other hand, is a platform for the promotion of artwork of certain artists that she wishes to introduce to others, even if this involves the crossing over of geographical locations. For Lisa, she is drawn to the inventiveness of devices or art objects and she looks to her roles as a curator to bridge the art’s outer attributes and with the artist’s inner imagination.

In public spheres, art has the ability to amplify place. The term “place making”, widely used by architects and urban planners, have now entered the art scene. Art provides access to the intangible qualities or resources of a specific place, like the places’s local histories, or the talents of the local communities. This is prevalent in Lim’s approach to Urbanscapes, with his multiple entry points of Kuala Lumpur through his varying programs of music, film, dance and visual art and Lisa, who celebrates the innovative practices of bamboo of Malaysia and the region.

They would engage with new perspectives that they get from their other practices and merge that with their curation process. As how Intan embeds herself into daily life of the community, days before she actually performs to them in order to understand localised behaviours or how Siew taps into her experience as a video artist and educator; as she prepares her next KLEX curatorial narrative.

When it comes to curating in public spaces, there is an emphasis on the creators or artists. Or to say that the “object” now includes the artist. It is now the art-artist that equates the “art object”. I interpret this when  Lisa said the object is a reflection on the person’s ingenuity. Intan said, we can get to know about the person through the body of work they produce. It is apparent that there is a greater emphasis on the artists rather than artwork, identifying a shift from the end-result to one that relates to process and creation.

In the end, a striking commonality was the conscious decision for these curators to remain “slippery” in their roles. Their ability to complement the expansion of the art is by having a strategy that allows them to constantly adapt to situations. 

I reflected on my tendency to be “slippery” in my role as curator at the Digital Art +Culture Festival; an  independent digital art festival I produced with my brother, Fairuz Sulaiman; as  an ad-hoc electrical assistant to guided tours for overseas guests. My spectrum of “care” oftentimes override the care for my own hygiene. 

Even going as far as not thinking of oneself as a curator as Lim asserted, “Sometimes I don’t really think of my job as really as a curator as I often ask myself what would make sense for this location and platform.” This purposeful porosity enables the curator to access different worlds or realities and to be able to maneuver between them.  

Projection mapping performance with Dragon Dance troupe based in Butterworth, Penang. This art commission presented at the Digital Art + Culture Festival (DA+C) 2011 in George Town, Penang; combine traditional performance with a 3D animated dragon. Photo credit: Digital Art + Culture Festival 2011

Fatigued from a night spent resolving technical issues with the production team, my team had returned to their hotels in the wee hours of the morning, to rest. I stayed on to apply black electrical tape over poorly covered cables that did not sit well with me. Concerned for visitor’s safety, I applied and reapplied. Moments later, a group of finely dressed people stood at the exhibition entrance. “Our architect conservationists from Hong Kong are here, could you bring them on a private curatorial tour of the exhibition?”, I was told by the Badan Warisan boss and immediately jumped up, decided to skip the shower and walked to the waiting visitors with a big smile on my face, ready to greet them.

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Lim Kok Kean, Intan Rafiza, Kok Siew Wai, Lisa Foo and Ahmad Fuad Rahmat for their kind input and guidance towards the preparation of this essay. 

References

https://clemsonenglish852.blogspot.com/2012/11/what-is-quasi-object.html Accessed 10 July 2020.

https://archaeblogy.wordpress.com/2010/01/13/human-remains-as-quasi-objects/ Accessed 10 July, 2020

Yap, Sau Bin (2019). Infrastructures: Narratives in Malaysian Art, Volume 4: Three Kinds of Curator: An Interview with Nur Hanim Khairuddin. RougeArt, Kuala Lumpur.

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